The Armadale to Mallaig crossing is among the most popular ferry routes in Scotland according to new figures obtained by Kate Forbes MSP.
According to 2017 statistics, Ardrossan to Brodick had the highest number of passengers with 844,198, followed by Largs to Millport (745,619), Wemyss Bay to Rothesay (713,906), Oban to Craignure (670,248) and Mallaig to Armadale (285,483).
Skye, Lochaber and, Badenoch MSP, Kate Forbes said she was surprised that Mallaig to Armadale crossing proved more popular than Ullapool to Stornoway (275,737).
The statistics also showed that the Skye to Mallaig route was the most popular crossing for coaches across Scotland.
Kate Forbes MSP said: “Since RET was introduced by the SNP Government, it’s great to see the rise in passengers.
“RET is vitally important to the islands and has arguably done more than anything else to level the playing field for island communities who need to travel.
“Mallaig to Armadale figures were up by 10 per cent compared to the fateful summer of 2016. Importantly that means that visitors will be travelling through the Sleat peninsula, where communities have worked long and hard to build up a viable industry.
“In the midst of the important debates about ferries and not least the importance of the MV Coruisk to the Armadale-Mallaig crossing, it’s important to celebrate the huge contribution that RET has made to the island economies.”
Two important questions about CalMac’s fleet
If CalMac’s league tables of ferry route usage tell us anything, it is that moving the MV ‘Coruisk’ from its purpose-built harbours on the busiest crossing in the north-west remains inexplicable.
If the two tables of passengers and coaches highlight anything else, it is that CalMac badly needs its two new ferries from the Clyde to be delivered according to their revised schedule and not experience a third delay.
It is a mild surprise, as Kate Forbes MSP says, to discover that more people sail between Mallaig and Armadale in Skye than between Stornoway and Ullapool and that more coaches cross the Sound of Sleat than make any other journey on CalMac’s itinerary.
That is clearly another reflection of the Skye tourist boom — if freight lorries were included in the list, Mallaig/Armadale would not feature so prominently, as they unsentimentally cross the bridge.
It is good news not only for Sleat but for the whole of the island. It is good news which is tempered by the fact that this busy, bustling route is now served only by whatever ships CalMac can spare, when the tide permits them, while its purpose-built vessel, the MV ‘Coruisk’, which can dock at Armadale in all tidal conditions, is ploughing between Mull and Oban 160 nautical miles away.
If CalMac had the ships, Mallaig/Armadale would be dependable and therefore even busier, Mull would have a vessel of its own and almost everybody would be happy.
CalMac do not have the ships in large part because two new deep-sea vessels which were commissioned in 2015 from Ferguson Marine Engineering at Port Glasgow show no sign of turning up for duty.
One of them is due to operate on CalMac’s busiest passenger route between Ardrossan and Arran. The other is to work between Uig, Tarbert and Lochmaddy, which last year carried almost 200,000 people.
The delivery date for those two ships has been put back twice. On each occasion, the £100 million contract to Ferguson Marine — which is the property of one of the Scottish Government’s friends, advisors and allies, the billionaire tax exile Jim McColl — was topped up by a multi-million-pound handout from the public purse.
If all was on schedule at least one of those ships would now be in service, and CalMac would have substantially more leeway in manoeuvring its fleet from one part of the west coast to another. They might even be able to keep the ‘Coruisk’ on the Sound of Sleat.
They are very far from on schedule. The new Ardrossan/Arran ferry is now supposed to be delivered next summer, and the new Uig/Tarbert/Lochmaddy ship in spring 2020.
Will they be delivered? Or will we experience a third delay, which would certainly plunge CalMac into even greater chaos as its ageing fleet breaks down or requires routine maintenance somewhere in the Baltic?
Those are important questions. As we reported last week, the chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, Rob MacKinnon, has criticised the Scottish Government for a lack of any “tangible action” to address the islands’ ferry problems.
The Scottish transport ministry, said Mr MacKinnon, must “pursue all feasible options to increase ferry capacity in both the long and the short term for the benefit of both visitors and islanders”.
As we report this week, Labour’s Western Isles’ candidate Alison MacCorquodale has added her voice to the many demanding to know the precise terms of the private finance initiative deal which has bound the Scottish Government into using just one ferry for all passengers and freight between Ullapool and Stornoway, with unacceptable consequences.
Ullapool/Stornoway may not yet carry as many tourists as Mallaig/Armadale. But it is the definition of a lifeline service, with 275,000 passengers last year, many of whom found themselves unable to squeeze onto an overbooked ‘Loch Seaforth’.
We should be told how and why one of our biggest and most important ferries came to be owned by Lloyds Bank.
We should be told if Jim McColl is going to deliver two badly-needed ships at the third time of asking.
It is not enough to say, as does transport minister Michael Matheson, that building CalMac’s ferries is “providing vital support to our shipbuilding industry”
The way things are going, building and rebuilding CalMac’s ferries will keep Scottish shipbuilding alive well into the next decade. Their higher purpose, and Mr Matheson’s job is to provide vital support to the Hebridean ferry service. That support is urgently required.